January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
Workplace resolutions about sustainability can easily dissolve in the face of uncooperative colleagues or a recalcitrant manager. Are people just being pig-headed, or is there more to it?
’35 British Standard Objections to Change’ is a list I first came across in the 1980s while preparing training materials for the Local Government Training Board. The list starts ‘Our work is different,’ and ends ‘We haven’t got money for this at present’. On the way it covers such gems as ‘We’ve been doing it that way for 25/15/10/5 years’, ‘We’ve never done it before’, ‘We tried it once before’, No-one’s ever tried it before,’ ‘Nothing new about it. We’ve been doing it all the time,’ ‘It’s so completely new to us,’ ‘The boss/committee/staff/clients/Treasurers/Personnel won’t like it’…and so on. The list captured the culture of local government bureaucracy at the time and produced wry smiles from anyone who had tried to shift the entrenched attitudes of people who were accustomed to their routine ways of doing things. You can see the full list here.
The idea that change is resisted through cultural attitudes and social systems is an important one, first suggested in the work of Jacques and Menzies-Lyth where they identified anxiety as the key factor driving resistance. Most people are made anxious by demands for change. The demands may:
- imply criticism of the status quo or suggest that work is not being done efficiently or effectively;
- call into question people’s ideas about their core purpose and tasks. In relation to sustainability, business people may be faced with questions about the morality and viability of their business area. Is it inherently destructive? Does it have a future in a changing world?
- threaten loss – of familiar tasks and goals, relationships or responsibilities;
- have practical implications such as redundancy, heavier workloads or additional responsibility;
- touch more primitive anxieties. This seems particularly true of climate change where fears of having done irreparable damage or guilt about greed can easily be stimulated.
Relying on the system
In the face of such anxiety, defensiveness is natural. What is unique about organisations however is the opportunity to frame the defence in terms of the organisation’s culture and systems. In each of the ‘British Standard Objections’ recourse was being made to some aspect of the culture or workplace system that was seen as part of the natural order or beyond the individual’s influence. In 1980s local government, this tended to be the well-established routines, roles and hierarchies of an inward-looking bureaucracy.
Modern business culture is quite different of course but the process is the same. Where 1980s local government employees fell back on the idea of an inevitable and unchanging bureaucracy, modern, private sector employees invoke the structures of the market, the attitudes of the customer or the arcane practices of the IT department to explain why – although they might like to – they will not be taking action. Do any of the following sound familiar?
Contemporary standard objections
‘It’s not competitive’, ‘It won’t be profitable’, ‘There isn’t a market’, ‘It will inhibit innovation’, ‘The board/customers/IT department/sales department won’t like it’, ‘We can’t afford it’, ‘We haven’t got time for it’, ‘It will reduce efficiency’, ‘It’s not viable for a small company’, ‘It’s not viable for a large company’…and so on. The full list can be found here, along with the original 35 British Standard Objections to Change. Often such responses conceal an underlying anxiety. This may be about climate change itself or about the process of change and the threats that it brings.
Making space and time to address these anxieties is essential. Although systems have to be reviewed and new procedures or technologies initiated the anxieties stimulated by demands for change must also be understood and dealt with. If they are not addressed, they will fuel resistance to change, usually through a strong defence of the existing system and culture.
(This piece first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business site)
See my chapter in the new volume edited by MaryJayne Rust and Nick Totton Vital Signs: psychological responses to ecological crisis, due from Karnac in February 2012.